Coming after a couple of slack efforts sadly reminiscent of Hitchcock’s tepid final years, Mother of Tears feels like Dario Argento’s Frenzy, a burst of late-career vigor that allows the horror auteur to address old themes and run them to delirious limits. Dense and oneiric, it is palpably the work of a decadent poet who couldn’t resist calling out the psycho monkeys and spilling innards on the floor before the 10-minute mark. This spurt of horrific violence is only the prelude to a wave of grotesqueries—a church’s courtyard full of creatures wailing for exorcism, mothers devouring their young when not throwing them off bridges—that hits Rome in tandem with the opening of a freshly excavated urn. “We’re supposed to believe in what we see, what we touch,” says Museum of Ancient Art curator Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento), and one can’t help smiling at the director’s in-joke of casting his own daughter, one of modern cinema’s great unbalancing forces, as the pragmatic, still center of a canvas of otherworldly horrors.
Still, Argento’s goal isn’t parody but summarization, a work that builds on the visions of Suspiria and Inferno while crafting its own distinct dark-fairy-tale landscape. The final chapter’s place in the maestro’s Three Mothers trilogy is explicated by Argento veteran Udo Kier as a nerve-wrecked priest, summing up the previous installments while warning of the “new age of witches” precipitated by the arrival of Mater Lacrimarum (Moran Atias), “the most cruel and beautiful of the three.” Sarah is in no time being stalked by agents from the witch’s black-magic sect, awakening to her strange powers and sorting through the picture’s heady brew of symbols and images. The story proceeds as a continuous enlarging of her world: Portals and corridors proliferate, and a bit of makeup powder is enough to reveal an invisible dimension of wandering souls which includes the heroine’s late mother (Daria Nicolodi).
Whether in giallo narratives or supernatural bonanzas, order in Argento’s cosmos is a thin skin stretched over a mass of disorder, conflict and dread. Seeing and deciphering have always been consistent motifs, and it’s no surprise that the films often traffic in violence to the eye. (Along with other sorts of invasion: Mother of Tears offers the most extreme dash of vaginal brutality since Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper.) “There’s nothing wrong with your mind. It’s the world that’s gone crazy,” Sarah is told. To judge from her ability to disappear and the fantasies churning within her, however, it’s safe to assume that the world is as much an extension of the heroine’s mind as it is a looming threat to it. In that sense, Mother of Tears bleeds fascinatingly not just into the earlier Mother films, but as well into Argento’s truly disturbing The Stendhal Syndrome, which also featured Asia in a portrait of a searcher suspended between reality and nightmare, illumination and insanity.
Argento shuttles so deftly between analog gore and CGI artifice that it’s a letdown when Sarah’s evocative walk into a mausoleum-of-the-mind past a beastly cavalcade out of Borsch leads to the anticlimactic unveiling of Mater Lacrimarum as a nondescript supermodel-succubus. (The villainess’s singsong query of “Who wants to eat the girl?” reverberates deliciously within the picture’s fusion of the mystical and the carnal though.) All the same, it’s a teasing, energized gothic reverie that refers to Suspiria‘s glories without cheapening them and, in the debased age of Eli Roth, shows that through Argento’s prowling camera the macabre can still be bloody lyrical.